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Christopher Preble and John Glaser join the show to discuss Trump’s approach, or lack thereof, to foreign policy.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Christopher Preble was the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He currently works as the co‐​director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

John Glaser is associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. His research interests include grand strategy, basing posture, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the rise of China, and the role of status and prestige motivations in international politics.

Christopher Preble and John Glaser talk about how Donald Trump’s rise in the Republican primaries and eventually to the presidency represented an astonishing break with the foreign policy consensus that had prevailed from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. And they detail this more extensively in their book, Fuel to the Fire: How Trump Made America’s Broken Foreign Policy Even Worse, which is a comprehensive explanation of how Trump’s “America First” mentality was more a campaign slogan than a coherent vision of American grand strategy and foreign policy.

How did Donald Trump change the messaging on foreign policy? Does the public support an adventurous foreign policy? What does the military think of Trump’s rhetoric? Does President Trump have a foreign policy doctrine? Is Trump obsessed with status and prestige? How is Donald Trump erratic?

Further Reading:


00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining me today is John Glaser, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and Christopher Preble, Cato’s Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies. Their new book, co‐​authored with Trevor Thrall is Fuel To The Fire: How Trump Made America’s Broken Foreign Policy Even Worse And How We Can Recover. Welcome back to the show.

00:28 Christopher Preble: Thank you.

00:28 John Glaser: Thank you.

00:29 Aaron Ross Powell: You write, early in the book, that Trump represented a break from the long‐​standing foreign policy consensus in Washington. What was that consensus, and how did we end up with it?

00:39 Christopher Preble: So, I’ll start… The consensus was that US military power was essential to the functioning of the planet, everything from peace and security and rising life expectancy to freer trade to… Everything good that happened after the United States became a dominant military power was sort of embraced by the bipartisan foreign policy establishment. Sometimes this goes back to the end of the Second World War, and the creation of the multilateral trading system, and certain alliances that rose out of the early Cold War period. Others would focus more on the end of the Cold War, where the United States had unchallenged military supremacy, at least for a good part of the 1990s and into the 2000s. And again, the notion was that US foreign policy was intended not merely to make the United States safe and secure, but to do something to make the rest of the world safe and secure. And he questioned that. He seemed to doubt that the benefits that we derived from these exertions were offset by the cost.

02:02 Trevor Burrus: And we’ve talked about… You mentioned the bipartisan foreign policy establishment. It seemed like the most interesting part of that, and we’ll get into what he actually did, but is that it didn’t hurt him that much in the polls. It didn’t alienate voters.

02:20 Christopher Preble: No, on the contrary, I think in the same way that Barack Obama’s criticism of the Iraq war at a time when his leading challengers in 2008, Biden and Kerry and Clinton, had all supported the war, it helped him. And in the same way, Trump being one of only two major candidates in the 2016 Republican race as criticizing the Iraq War, and I think it helped him. And perhaps, everyone talks about this, we talk about it in the book, that Donald Trump went to South Carolina, and in a Republican debate, criticized a Republican President’s war, while standing next to that President’s brother, was sort of a key moment in the campaign. And again, it didn’t hurt him, and arguably helped him secure a win in that critical state and the nomination.

03:17 John Glaser: Yeah, so I think some of the unorthodox things that Trump said during the campaign were salient with voters, but other things weren’t super salient, but had been thought to have… For example, when he said NATO was obsolete. That was perceived as something that would be disqualifying for a presidential candidate. But the public didn’t care, I don’t think. They’re not driven to the polls, or away from them, by whether or not we’re a member of NATO. I just don’t think it’s a top priority of theirs. And that kind of generalizes. There’s a lot that the United States does in the world that Americans aren’t really that informed about and don’t really understand, and so many of the things that most upset the foreign policy establishment out of Trump’s campaign, either got a thumbs up from the public, or they didn’t seem to care that much.

04:17 Aaron Ross Powell: How much of that success that he had was specifically about criticisms of Iraq, in terms of the public’s perception? The public didn’t like Iraq, but should we read that as the public generally doesn’t like, or at least isn’t necessarily turned on by a foreign policy of the kind that gets us Iraq, versus this is just, this one war is unpopular, but across the board and the other things they’re fine with a consensus.

04:46 John Glaser: It’s sort of hard to say. What I will say is that presidents of the post‐​Cold War period that have campaigned on nation building at home and rejected adventurism in their initial campaigns tended to win. Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid.” George W. Bush came into office campaigning in 2000 saying, “Humble foreign policy, no nation building abroad.” Obama came after him and had a huge leg up in the Democratic primaries, primarily I think because of his opposition to the Iraq war, which the other leading contenders didn’t have. And then Trump came in and made similar comments. And so it seems, at least to the extent that we can generalize this, that the public is happy to hear criticisms of an adventurous foreign policy, but the extent to which it was the deciding factor, or people went to the polls for that reason, I think it’s really hard to say. I don’t know what you think.

05:54 Christopher Preble: I think there are two… I would generally agree with John, I’d just add two clarifications or extend that a little bit. First, from time to time, Donald Trump wasn’t criticizing the wars so much as the fact that we weren’t winning them. And so you could interpret his remarks. I think this is especially true with respect to Afghanistan, and somewhat less so with respect to Iraq, that if he were president, we wouldn’t be in the same mess, which is to say we wouldn’t still be trying, fighting to a draw for 18 years. And so, if I’m right about that, then that is not an argument for withdrawal, by any stretch, or non‐​intervention, it’s an argument for expanding the war and doing so under the cover of… Well, now we’ve seen it under the Trump administration under the veil of secrecy, and obscuring from the public what’s actually happening in their name.

06:50 Christopher Preble: The other point, though, I want to make is about the foreign policy establishment, because Donald Trump did go after the foreign policy establishment, the bipartisan establishment. Running in the Republican primary, he was assailed vociferously by nearly every leading Republican foreign policy voice, because of his opposition to the war in Iraq in particular. But this establishment had a lot to answer for. They had… They did have a, at best, uneven track record, and this is the thing that that president, that candidate Trump really went after, and I think that was a popular line. It’s not… Again, it’s not so unique for a candidate to run against Washington and it was easier for an outer borough New Yorker to run against Washington than for a sitting senator to do so.

07:38 John Glaser: Very quickly, before we move on, I’m sure we’ll get to this, but it should be pointed it out before we move on, any further that, yes, Trump said some things deeply at odds with the foreign policy establishment during the campaign, but he also said things that were super hawkish and in line with the foreign policy establishment. What characterized his campaign primarily, I think, was inconsistency. So, yes, he criticized the Iraq war. He said we shouldn’t be involved in Afghanistan. He seemed to not really like the fact that we’re forward deployed in overseas bases all over the world, but he also said he’s going to ramp up the air war against ISIS. He suggested we should attack the families of terrorists, that we should bring back torture, and so…

08:22 Christopher Preble: Take the oil.

08:22 John Glaser: Take the oil. There was a lot of things in there that… It would be wrong to say that Trump was a determined opponent of the foreign policy establishment.

08:34 Aaron Ross Powell: Okay, so the foreign policy establishment didn’t much care for him during the campaign, but the other people involved in foreign policy, the troops, the men and women in the armed forces, what did they think of him and of his rhetoric during the campaign?

08:50 Christopher Preble: I think it’s really mixed. I think we have to recognize that the military is not a monolith, that is it’s a very, very diverse group of men and women. In fact, the data that I have seen suggest that, again, partisan affiliation is much more of an explanation of whether or not a person supports a particular candidate. I think that’s still true.

09:13 Christopher Preble: Troops tend to be younger. Trump does not score well among the sort of millennials in general, and so to the extent that the average soldier, sailor, airman, marine is under 40 years of age, this probably does not correlate well to his supporters. There’s also an interesting difference among the officer class between mid‐​grade officers, that is to say, majors and lieutenant colonels, who have probably by now done somewhere between three and five tours in either Iraq and Afghanistan, but have not yet been elevated in the upper echelons of leadership. A real sense of frustration and just a sense of, I don’t want to say hopelessness, that’s a little bit too strong, but a sense of what exactly are we doing and why are we doing it? And so if you have a candidate coming along saying things a lot like that, then it wouldn’t shock me if they find that to be sort of appealing.

10:13 Trevor Burrus: Seems like a relevant point to ask about something relevant. Recently, before we get kind of into more of the nitty gritty, the pardoning of Chief Gallagher, I think his name is, and some other war criminals, seems sort of vexing in many ways. Trump does a lot of things that are vexing, but especially in the case of one of these has had six SEALs come out against him and had been… What do we see that, how does that fit into the broader scope of Trump, or can we fit it in, or is it just that Trump watched the guys on Fox News talk about this and decided he had to do something about it?

10:51 John Glaser: Well, he was lobbied by a Fox News reporter or someone with a microphone, whatever you call those people, to engage in this. I think he has some serious empathy problems, and he also is a huge nationalist, so he’s not one to welcome an opportunity to admit wrong or apologize. And he has, I mean, a real distaste for the rule of law. So the fact that these war crimes cases, I mean, some of them are really gruesome details, mutilating dead bodies and it’s really ugly stuff, have went through the court process and this is the dispute that Trump and some people in his cabinet came to is that Trump wanted to interfere in that process, and the others wanted to let it play out on its own. And so, in that sense it’s typical Trump. But it does seem, I don’t know, how you feel about this, Chris, it does seem out of the blue. Why would he get his panties in a bunch about this particular issue of war crimes, and trying to get war criminals off scot‐​free?

12:02 Trevor Burrus: And to Chris, since you did serve, if you’re trying to court the military, I don’t think most military people would be in favor of this.

12:11 Christopher Preble: I think again, I think it really depends. I agree with you, I think most people see this as an interference in the traditional justice system. The military justice system has its own special idiosyncrasies, but it’s still based on the principles that we all understand, and there’s this notion of good order and discipline and violating those rules is a threat to the institution and ultimately undermines national security. I think this is yet another example of where the President’s lack of preparation in general for the office leads, him to be easily swayed, by a well‐​timed media appearance by someone who has his ear at the moment.

13:00 Trevor Burrus: So now are we able to say what is the Trump doctrine or what is Trump’s… Is there such a thing?

13:09 John Glaser: That’s one of the points we try to make in the book. I think the office of the president has tendency to… It adds a lot of prestige to a person and there’s a tendency to just assume that they have information at their disposal, they have studied the issues, they know what they’re doing, this is their jobs and I think there’s a tendency to assume that Trump has more grasp over the national security issues over which he now has ultimate authority than he actually does. He’s not thought long and hard about the US role in the world, and he doesn’t really understand how the world works.

13:48 John Glaser: And so, the Trump doctrine, such as it is, is a mix of inconsistent contradictory impulses, ad‐​hoc policymaking, refusal to engage with the interagency process, which makes even the kinds of policy moves that maybe Chris and I are amenable to unworkable. I’m thinking specifically of his multiple attempts to withdraw from Syria, which he did via social media as opposed to a thorough interagency process, which would have allowed a withdrawal to actually be accomplished. So it’s a kind of a mix of scattershot impulses and lots of domestic considerations rather than a coherent vision of how to secure the United States in the world and what role we should play abroad. He doesn’t have a firm set of views on that.

14:49 Christopher Preble: Can I weigh in on that? The interagency process, that phrase sort of sounds like fingernails on the chalkboard, I suspect, for many listeners and sometimes for me too. So here’s… Let me offer a brief defense of the interagency process, by which we mean the body of experts in the government who serve not at the pleasure of a particular party, but who have acquired subject matter expertise over many years and who when the time comes can be called upon to give advice to the Commander‐​in‐​Chief. That’s the part that he doesn’t have any interest in, it seems. He, therefore, relies on ad‐​hoc sort of advice and commentary from people who are not genuinely experts. Now, you may recall that just a few minutes ago, I said that the foreign policy establishment had much to answer for, but that does not mean that every single person that has ever weighed in on foreign policy at any time in the last quarter century doesn’t have any idea what they’re talking about. And I think there’s a danger that we are sort of witnessing play out where if you, in fact, have had any role in US foreign policy over the last 25 years, then you are somehow not to be trusted to do anything or say anything and have anyone listen to you and take you seriously.

16:04 John Glaser: But the issue of interagency process doesn’t begin and end there, it also includes trying to unite your own cabinet around a clear strategy and therefore get everyone on the same page so that policy can be implemented. The executive branch is a monstrosity. It’s hard to get the President’s orders specifically and identically carried out, because it’s just such a massive bureaucracy with so many players. So it’s important to get people together, like his own cabinet, understand what the President wants, understand why, understand the consequences, understand the possible unintended consequences. And so he doesn’t do that, and that’s why many of his policies that he’d like to pursue or occasionally articulate the desire to pursue can’t get carried out, because there’s all this bureaucratic in‐​fighting and mixed signals and lack of information for the whole executive branch.

17:00 Aaron Ross Powell: You mentioned withdrawal from Syria via tweet and the tweets have been a striking feature of his foreign policy and Commander‐​in‐​Chief‐​ness during this administration. I think that was the first one, the transgender military band that he just tweeted out. Are tweets military orders? How is the military… It seems like some of them they just kind of ignore and he forgets about it, or it goes away but like how are… If you’re a general and the Commander‐​in‐​Chief tweets out an order to his millions of followers, how do you respond to that? How are you supposed to respond to that?

17:40 John Glaser: There was some initial confusion in the government about how to respond to that. And the pattern that I’ve seen is that people have learned that a tweet will come out. It might be wild and erratic and a radical 180 degree turn from what policy was, but especially for the military, I believe, they wait until a formal order has been issued by the President, in the way that it used to be. And in the interim, if they’re questioned on why aren’t you pursuing this policy, how are you going to implement this policy that Trump has just tweeted out, what they say is, “Tweets aren’t orders and I’m waiting for the formal process.” So a lot of these times, Trump’s staff will carry out the order in an official way.

18:26 Trevor Burrus: Sometimes not, though, sometimes it never goes anywhere.

18:28 John Glaser: That’s right, yeah.

18:29 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. So but you do… We’ve identified, obviously, the… Trying to get a handle on the man, which is kind of what you guys do in the book if you’re trying to figure out… We always had these great… Things you study, if you do a PhD in international relations, we have realist foreign policy and all these things, but Trump is kind of a cult of personality in this situation, so understanding him, is about understanding his foreign policy. And so you identify some of his thinking, zero sum coming from some of his business practices. I think one of your really insightful observations, if you are zero sum and you view people as you have to destroy your enemy or not in business or in war, as opposed to cooperate with them, that means that people who are allies are getting more criticism than people who are not allies. So that one… We also have Jacksonian nationalism and militarism. So first of all, talk about the zero sum thinking, and how that works out.

19:32 John Glaser: Yeah, so what I tried to do was find categories and descriptors that could explain Trump’s behavior and impulses on foreign policy. And since he hasn’t studied the issues, and he doesn’t fit into any of the traditional categories that you mentioned, he’s not a realist, he’s not a liberal internationalist, that doesn’t apply to him. So.

19:56 Trevor Burrus: But he believes that he is the smartest person on the planet. So.

20:00 John Glaser: Certainly does.

20:01 Trevor Burrus: And we’ve been ruled by idiots for a very long time. So, that’s an important fact, I think.

20:05 John Glaser: I identified four frames. The first one, as you say, is zero sum transactional‐​ism. This means, this explains, for example, his… One of his most prominent and consistent views on trade. Our win is your loss, and vice versa. And he doesn’t, you know, trade deficits are bad, and we need to engage in protectionist tariff measures, and so on, but it also boils over into security policy. So, for example, his veto of Congress’s legislation that would have stopped our involvement in Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen, which is a terrible humanitarian crisis, bombing civilians and all this kind of stuff. And we’ve supported them. His reason for refusing to allow that legislation to pass was that, “Well, the Saudis buy a lot of arms from us.”

20:57 John Glaser: And so the millions of people that are suffering in Yemen don’t matter. The strategic case for supporting Saudi Arabia and weighing the pros and cons there, is not relevant in this equation. But some fraction of 1% of US jobs go to building the weapons that we then sell to Saudi Arabia and therefore, is cool with him.

21:21 John Glaser: The second one is Jacksonian, Jacksonian nationalism and militarism. If you have a lot of time on your herons, you can go back to 2001, it might have been 2000, political scientist Walter Russell Mead wrote a book. And he mentioned, and he kind of defines it. And if you go back and read that, it is absolutely uncanny as a description of Trump…

[overlapping conversation]

21:43 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, you think he was writing… You have a long quote of him, like… He wrote this before Trump. He’s not doing a post mortem on the Trump presidency, he’s describing this exact impulse.

21:53 John Glaser: And one of the… That engage… That that’s nationalism, but also… And people pointed this out in the campaign. When his Republican contenders during the primary tried to challenge him, he would punch back with overwhelming force, lots of insults and really go after ‘em, make a nickname out of it. But neutral parties that didn’t challenge him, he would kinda leave alone. And that’s one important feature of Jacksonianism as a kind of foreign policy tendency.

22:22 John Glaser: The third is status and prestige and respect. I looked through the, basically all of Trump’s public statements and op‐​eds and speeches from 1980 until the 2016 campaign, and there’s a consistent theme. I didn’t expect to find this, but in my review of that material, again and again and again and again, you see him complaining that people don’t respect us anymore, that we’re not number one, that they’re laughing at us, that we’re being taken advantage of, and it’s just super important for him to be respected.

23:00 John Glaser: When he was persuaded to bomb the Syrian regime as a consequence of their use of chemical weapons, he got a lot of internal. He got a big internal status boost in terms of our own political system. The establishment praised him for it. There was bipartisan agreement and support in Congress. People like CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said he’s finally become President now. He’s embraced the leadership role of America. And he loved that. And that’s a kind of incentive to be more hawkish and interventionist, unfortunately.

23:30 John Glaser: And the final one is the authoritarian mind. Political scientists have been studying the… How authoritarian‐​minded people carry out policy and government and heads of state for more than 70 years. And they have similar traits in terms of how they manage their team, how they deal with dissenting opinions within their administration, but it also speaks to Trump’s behavior. So, for example, his disdain for checks and balances. He tried to… He put immigration under his national security strategy for the first time in history. And so he wanted to shut down government because Congress wouldn’t agree to fund his wall, which is not necessary. And that’s the kind of behavior that an authoritarian mind will engage in.

24:19 John Glaser: But of course, he’s also, you know, anyone that dissents from his is treasonous. People that have quit the administration or resigned are traitors. He calls the press the enemy of the people. And this all kind of colors his world view, and actually does end up helping to explain some of his tendencies on a foreign policy.

24:40 Christopher Preble: Two quick points on that. John just did a terrific job in sort of unpacking these frames. It’s really brilliant. And the last two points do go together. So the element of the authoritarian instinct is to equate loyalty to the person, the leader of the state, as loyalty to the state. And the criticism of that individual amounts to treason. Trump has said this, tweeted it, uttered it, in many different contexts, that is both consistent with his concern, his sort of authoritarian tendencies, but also relates to his obsession over status and prestige.

25:19 Christopher Preble: The other point, we’re recording this on a day when a video has circulated of several state leaders at the NATO meeting laughing about Trump. It’s obvious they’re laughing about Trump. His name is not uttered, but it’s… But the context in which they are engaging in this within less than two hours of the circulation of this video, is when the President left the meeting in a huff. I don’t think there’s any way to observe that moment and not see this as a manifestation of his obsession over respect, respect for him. Now, because of the office he occupies, he equates, again, respect for him as respect for the United States of America. And I think in that respect, he does get some sympathy from not merely his supporters, but especially his supporters, but others along those lines. And so that’s, I think, to me, very dangerous. We do not typically equate the President of the United States with the United States of America and yet, that’s where we are today, in large measure because of Donald Trump.

26:27 Aaron Ross Powell: I mean, this all sounds really bad. Like just a recipe for a disaster, especially when this is the person who can issue belligerent orders that have to be immediately carried out with overwhelming force. But the years that he’s been here, there have been bad things on the foreign policy front, but they have not been the catastrophe that one might imagine if, John, you had set out this picture and said, “This is the guy that’s coming into office tomorrow. What do you think the next four years are going to look like?”

27:03 Trevor Burrus: And I guess, on that point, even, he fires John Bolton and there’s that story even where he kind of mocked him, he was like, “Well, I know you want to bomb them all, John,” or something like this which, at least, he hasn’t. The thing that scares me is someone with this meglomaniacal personality being like, “Man, war is how people achieve greatness and how American presidents achieve greatness. And I need a war.” So, he hasn’t actually really gone down that.

27:30 John Glaser: So he’s expanded some of the wars that he inherited, but he hasn’t altered our sort of posture in general. One quick correction. John Bolton resigned.

27:41 Trevor Burrus: Yes.

27:42 John Glaser: Trump subsequently claimed that he fired him because he’s a liar. And then, he shot out the John wants to bomb everything, which is perfectly true, but really as an insult and not as a substantive policy disagreement. Because Trump, he may be ignorant of a lot of policy, but one thing he knows, is what his base wants. And his base is pretty strongly in favor of pushing back against the kind of neo‐​con hawks like John Bolton and the Bush era neocons.

28:13 John Glaser: To your question, I think there’s probably two sensible explanations for why catastrophe hasn’t hit us. One is that Trump is in way over his head, and so it would be really bad if a determined, authoritarian mind, with all of these bad tendencies was able to calculate and do things competently, that would be really bad. Trump doesn’t really have that. Strategy is not his thing. He flies off the handle, forgets about it, changes policy. So his erratic nature and his failure to actually hold a specific vision in mind about what we ought to do is part of why catastrophe hasn’t befallen us.

28:58 John Glaser: The second reason, this is a testament to how safe we are. The United States is so, so safe that we can elect a totally unfit guy like Donald Trump, who has serious cognitive problems, and doesn’t even I think understand the policy issues over which he has authority, and still be super safe. And that’s because we just don’t face major threats. We’re so powerful, we’re so insulated from threats from the outside world that we can make huge mistakes and still be okay. In fact, you can even apply that same lesson to previous presidents. The Iraq War was certainly a catastrophe. It was a serious war crime, killed hundreds of thousands of people in the region, millions of people displaced, countless lives just ruined. It was horrible. But other than the debt that we incurred as a nation and the loss of life in terms of our military people, did we face serious consequences?

30:04 John Glaser: No. If a state made that kind of mistake in the past, and wasn’t as safe or as disproportionately powerful as the United States, I think it would have been ruinous. But this is just a testament, I think, to how much we actually don’t need an adventurous foreign policy to be safe, is that you can mess around with it and have a fool up there and still be fine.

30:25 Christopher Preble: Everything that John just said, and I would add one thing on the… So again, this is my job, being sort of the Eeyore of the department.


30:32 Christopher Preble: Sort of, the glass is half empty. Precisely because what the realists would call the structural constraints do not exist on the United States, there is not the same sort of formal pressure by other states. It’s starting to change, but for the time being, the United States is still so extraordinarily safe and secure, it can do lots of really, really stupid things and not suffer ruinous effects. If on the flip side, there is a political benefit, a domestic political benefit, in engaging in bellicose behavior, even behavior, that in retrospect, would look foolish and reckless, that still may be reason enough for the President to engage in that activity to mobilize public support for his relatively under the water, under water approval rating.

31:20 John Glaser: And one brief bow to put on that. We shouldn’t understate the severity of the situation that we are in. Catastrophe might not be the right word, but we’ve seen very serious problems. Trump loosened the rules of engagement in our bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in the first two years of his administration and civilian casualties shot up 215%. He has eroded very important democratic norms, which are technically not laws that you have to follow, but he’s eroded them. He’s whipped up the Republican Party to be something on the order of what you see in a banana republic, a collective exercise of reality denial, refusing to recognize facts and truth. It’s impossible to have a democracy that works…

32:16 Trevor Burrus: And they’re supplicants too, to that cult of personality. Like whatever happened to Lindsey Graham and how he looks at himself in the mirror every night is mind‐​blowing.

32:22 John Glaser: Right. And Trump has further cemented the notion that the president can engage in hostilities abroad without Congress’s approval. He can go to war without getting his constitutionally required approval from Congress. And so, things are bad, maybe not catastrophe, but things are really concerning, I think.

32:46 Aaron Ross Powell: Chris, you mentioned the relationships with allies. And so, Trump is not going to be in office forever. He’ll either be out…

32:55 Trevor Burrus: Hoping. [chuckle] Not forever.

32:56 Aaron Ross Powell: In a year or in… He’ll get another term, but he’s not… And so eventually, we’ll get a different president. And those allies will still exist in some form. What’s the… If you’re… So you’re England or you’re Canada or you’re France or you’re Germany and you’ve had a long history of dealing with the United States. And suddenly, you have a new leader who is acting very differently than the ones you’re used to dealing with and has the issues that we’ve raised. What does that do to both your short‐​term relationship with the US and we’re talking about the mistake of thinking that the president is the country. Do foreign nations and foreign leaders distinguish those, that this is Trump being Trump, but America is still America? Or is this now like what they think of America, and then how do they think about what happens when the next person comes into office?

33:55 Christopher Preble: Right. Well, I think a lot of it… It’s a great question. I think a lot of it depends on whether Trump is re‐​elected. I think many of these countries had concluded fairly early on that they could weather four years of the President of the United States being erratic and saying things from time to time that seemed to defy the strategic relationship that they had established over many years and many Presidents. On the other hand, I think if President Trump were to be re‐​elected, I think there would be a more concerted effort by these countries to fashion a plan B or an alternative. But I think that’s profoundly irresponsible on their part.

34:43 Christopher Preble: I wrote about this back in August of 2016. So after Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination, but long before he was elected president and when the betting market said he had about one in three chance, less… At the time when I wrote it, it was about a one in four chance of winning the presidency. I said if you’re Germany and you’re France and you’re Canada, and you have based your security to some degree on the promise of the President of the United States and the United States of America to come to your defense in a time of need, and there is a one in four chance that the President of the United States does not honor that commitment, it would be profoundly irresponsible for you to continue to base your foreign policy on that, and yet that didn’t happen. And instead, you have some hedging, a bit, but not nearly what I would expect. What you saw immediately after his election, Shinzo Abe is probably the best example of this, the Prime Minister of Japan, because in the past, Donald Trump had been quite critical of the Japanese, more so than even the Europeans.

35:46 Trevor Burrus: We had to deal with him in the ‘80s as a businessman.

35:49 Christopher Preble: Right, exactly right. And so Shinzo Abe hugged Donald Trump as close to him as he possibly could, and it seemed to have worked.

35:56 Trevor Burrus: And he gave them, what was it, like a gold…

35:58 John Glaser: Oh, yeah, a gold golf club. He made a hat that was a play on Trump’s campaign…

36:04 Trevor Burrus: Make America Great Again.

36:05 John Glaser: Make America Great Again. With Make Japan‐​US Alliance Great Again. So yes.

36:11 Trevor Burrus: That’s just, yeah, playing himself.

36:12 John Glaser: Yeah, Abe knows that flattery works with this guy.

36:17 Christopher Preble: Yeah. So, going back to your question there, I think that the sense that the inertia in the US foreign policy establishment that still exists in spite of President Trump being at the head of it, will sustain it. We know of stories of even senior officials within the Trump administration going out to the allies in the immediate aftermath of his election and reassuring them all the way, including Vice President Pence, Secretary Mattis, Secretary Tillerson sort of reassuring these allies, say the President doesn’t really mean it. On the occasions when the President has actually said, for example, questioning Article 5, that’s when the other administration officials have gone out of their way to claw that back, even such that he has to claw it back.

37:02 Christopher Preble: So I think there are moments in time where this sort of a more responsible posture on the part of our allies to be more self‐​reliant and to be less dependent upon the United States for their security have been impeded by his own inconsistencies, but equally important, by comments and behavior of his other members of the administration who frankly are not committed to changing the way the United States engages with the rest of the world.

37:28 Aaron Ross Powell: This seems like a good opportunity to ask then about anything that he’s done that’s good. Is there a silver lining here? Are there positive steps that are being taken? So on the issue of the allies, Cato’s Foreign Policy Department has long argued that other nations should step up more in their own defense and not rely on US, either military presence directly there in bases or whatever, or just the promise that we will bail them out. And so, maybe him pushing these people away eventually, even if they’re not willing to do it right now, if this is getting them to consider it, like maybe that’s a good thing. So is that a good thing? And are there other potential good things that have happened in the last few years?

38:10 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. And I’d like to add that Cato’s [38:12] ____ been critical of NATO. And also we’re pro‐​diplomacy. So when we looked at, say, North Korea, I’m not sure that not talking to them was the best thing. But Trump goes to talk to him because he feels like he can make a deal with anyone. But overall, that’s not, that’s not bad.

38:31 John Glaser: Yeah, I would say there are a few things that are… So for example, on North Korea, it’s a good thing that we can engage in face‐​to‐​face diplomacy. Trump’s, I think, shown himself incapable of carrying out complex diplomatic overtures like that. And his administration because of all the reasons we’ve talked about can’t really help him along. He did it in the reverse way, he met with Kim Jong‐​un face‐​to‐​face before any of the details of any kind of deal had been worked out, and contrast that to Obama, where in his diplomacy with Iran, years and years went by, lower level diplomacy, secret talks, formalized talks, all the way up the chain. And then finally when they had figured out all the kinks, they went for a deal. And Trump did it the reverse way because he cares more about the stage craft than the state craft of it.

39:25 Trevor Burrus: And weirdly, as you point out in the book, like with the JCPOA, the Iranian nuclear deal, which had tons of oversight, Trump goes to Kim Jong‐​un and because he tells him that we’re good, he’s like, “Well, that’s done.”

39:39 John Glaser: Basically it proves that Trump’s criticism of the JCPOA was based on sand because he… All of the reasons he said it was a weak deal he’s embraced that, when it comes to North Korea. But I can’t praise him for these things. Here’s what I can give him credit for, maybe Chris disagrees, maybe there’s more narrow issues that we can celebrate. But his sheer disruptor status has shaken loose the consensus that we talked about on US foreign policy. And an argument could be made that there was a gradual process taking place. The United States is a lower and lower share of the global economy, we are less and less capable of doing the kinds of ambitious things that we did in the past. Partly that’s because of all the war fatigue that happened with Iraq and Afghanistan post‐​9/​11. But Trump’s sort of erratic nature and his full‐​throated attack on the first principles of US foreign policy has shaken things loose a bit and it’s made even determined advocates of primacy, of the status quo, of policing the world, grapple with the fact that maybe we need to pare it back or make wiser choices at the very least.

41:00 Christopher Preble: So two points, returning to the other parts of the sub‐​title. We spent a lot of time talking about how Trump made things worse, but the policy was broken, and I think we have to recognize there is a danger. I have a fear that there will be a nostalgia for what came before Donald Trump and imagining away or ignoring the flaws of that foreign policy. So I think it’s extremely important for us to establish, which is why my portions of the book really focused on the history, setting the what came before and sort of unpacking there were serious problems with that foreign policy which John has already articulated. Not the least of which is that we are constrained, we are… Our power is constrained, our economic power is constrained, we are not the hegemon in the same way that we imagine ourselves to be. We cannot determine and dictate to the rest of the world how to behave and that is not going to change, no matter who replaces Donald Trump, and when they come along, those things cannot simply be waved away.

41:56 John Glaser: And by the way, with respect to the politics, we’re already seeing some of this. So many in Washington find that in their interest to when Trump opposes something to go deeply in the other way. So for example, Trump’s quite a dove when it comes to Russia, and that’s something that Chris and I, I think, basically agree on. Russia is a 10‐​foot tall and a major existential threat to the United States. We don’t really buy that. Their economy is about the size… Smaller than Italy’s. They spend about $66 billion or $63 billion on their military annually, that’s…

42:32 Christopher Preble: Less than one‐​10th what we spend.

42:34 John Glaser: And NATO, Europe, of course, outspends Russia by leaps and bounds.

42:39 Trevor Burrus: But they’re a threat to many of their neighbors, as Ukraine has shown. And they’ve shown they can play and we can’t well. That’s how they’ve leveraged their sort of unique advantages in the gray zone to disrupt. And that’s what…

42:52 John Glaser: But what you see… Actually, on both Republican and the Democratic side is that they now see it as in their advantage to be hawkish on Russia because Trump is dove‐​ish. And so I fear that we might see more of that. If there’s this widespread criticism of Trump’s disdain for ongoing wars in the Middle East, despite the fact that he continues to carry them out, but he has criticized them. And so that again, especially for Democrats, pushes them to be more in favor of active military measures in the Middle East because Trump’s opposed to it.

43:25 Trevor Burrus: But on NATO, that’s another, as you said Chris today, there’s a NATO meeting. So Trump has both been critical and then has also been expanding for reasons that are not totally clear to me.

43:37 John Glaser: Nope. He shares that, by the way, with his predecessors. All his predecessors criticized NATO for burden‐​sharing, especially the Obama administration. Robert Gates, who was his Secretary of Defense, told Europe essentially that NATO was doomed to failure unless you guys share more of the burden and take more responsibility for your own security. There was very sharp criticisms going all the way back to Eisenhower of this problem. And so that’s nothing new.

44:05 Christopher Preble: But what is… It is true, Trevor, that on Donald Trump’s watch two new members of NATO have been admitted into the alliance. On Donald Trump’s watch, on his authority, by his orders, the size of the US military presence in Europe, and especially in Eastern Europe, has grown. The nature of the relationship, even with Ukraine, for example, as much as we focused on the criticism of him withholding military aid, he ultimately did provide military aid to Ukraine, something that President Obama did not do.

44:38 Christopher Preble: So I think there is more than enough evidence to suggest that he is not a retrencher, he’s not talking about retrenching, he wants these things to be done on his terms and reflecting well on him. And so I will say this, if when President Trump took office, four countries in NATO were spending a minimum of 2% of GDP on their defense, now seven countries are spending a minimum of 2% of GDP on defense, and some projections say it’ll be maybe 10 or 11 or 12 countries by the time… He will claim credit for that. He will claim credit for doing that, and it will be impossible for anyone to disprove that, post hoc ergo propter hoc.

45:18 Christopher Preble: But what I find… I take some sort of perverse encouragement or take this as a welcome sign, more people are saying that that kind of behavior on the part of Europeans in particular is welcome news. Once upon a time, people would have said, “No, no, no, we definitely don’t want countries doing that.” So notwithstanding Bob Gates and all with the back to John Foster Dulles, not withstanding members of presidential administrations talking about burden‐​sharing, there has been an underlying sense that, if forced to choose between a Europe, in particular, that does more or a Europe that does less, most in the foreign policy establishment preferred a Europe that did less, a Europe that was dependent upon the United States, and therefore compelled, virtually compelled, to follow our lead. That’s the word that was used. And that is less likely to be true coming out of the Trump administration, whenever that happens.

46:14 Aaron Ross Powell: John, to your worry about so many people want to do just whatever the opposite is of what Trump’s into, that it will drag, where he’s dove‐​ish, it’ll drag both parties into hawkishness. Does that get pushed back on a bit by the fact that, again, setting aside what he actually did well in office, his rhetoric during the campaign was much less interventionist than we’re used to. And he won. And so do we… Is there the possibility then that whoever the nominee is next year, or in four years, or just down the road, that people will feel more willing to embrace a more restrained foreign policy because they’ve seen that you can get elected by doing it?

47:04 John Glaser: Yes. So it’s not across the board, what I was saying before. And I think a perfect illustration of that is to take a look at what the Democrats are saying, the Democratic contenders for president this time around, 2020. It’s not a consensus, but there’s broad agreement that we need to pare back the post‐​9/​11 activity that we’ve been engaging in. There’s phrases like “ending endless war” and stuff like that. These are topical, these are salient. And I think on the Democrat side they do have a recognition that their constituents, their base, prefer a less activist military policy. And so, yes, I think that will stick in some respects.

47:48 Christopher Preble: And I also think this is an opportunity, or really a moment for us to talk about what we’re for, because it’s not just enough to be against the wars that we’ve been fighting, which have ultimately not redounded to American safety and security, and I think on balance have undermined them. The United States was, was, an example for the rest of the world for most of its history. It worked for us, it worked well, and there is still support for that. There is a modicum of support for diplomacy and trade, which are other ways to engage in the rest of the world, does not sort of pull up the drawbridge, so to speak. That is not what most Americans support.

48:24 Christopher Preble: Most Americans are open to the argument that we should be cooperating with other countries as opposed to threatening them, both our allies and our adversaries. And so there is an alternative. We do not simply have to return to the primacy model that Donald Trump took a wrecking ball to, nor to embrace his protectionist approach, his, again, sort of pulling up the drawbridge approach. There is an alternative, and that’s what we try to articulate in this book.


49:00 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, you can find our Free Thoughts discussion group on Facebook or on Reddit at r/​freethoughtspodcast. You can follow us on Twitter @FreeThoughtsPod. As always, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.